November 15, 2011

Make it Personal

While data and statistics do not tell the full story about the vitality and vibrancy of a denomination, the recent numbers on Episcopal Church membership and Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) are somewhat sobering. Over the past ten years, Episcopal Church membership among domestic dioceses has declined by over 16% with a decrease of 2.7% between 2009 and 2010. More significantly, church attendance has declined by over 23% in ten years and almost 4% between 2009 and 2010. On an “average” Sunday in 2010, there were only 658,000 people worshipping in all the Episcopal churches in the United States. Where was everybody else?

To put it in local perspective, 68% of Episcopal Church congregations have an average Sunday attendance of 100 or fewer and 286 of the church’s 6,794 parishes and missions have an ASA of 10 or fewer. The median ASA is 65.

So what is my point? Am I simply stating the obvious conclusion that the Episcopal Church, like most mainline denominations, is in significant decline and facing ultimate extinction unless there is a significant and dramatic turnaround? While that might be a reasonable prognosis, the purpose of this blog post is not scare people or predict the death of the Episcopal Church. Rather, my point is to sound the alarm and issue a call to action to all clergy and lay leaders at the local congregational level – spread the good news of the Gospel in your own local communities and the numbers will take care of themselves. To put it another way, while every faithful Episcopalian should be concerned about declining numbers and resources at the wider church level, the only place most of us can really make a difference is in our local worshipping communities.

Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil once said that all politics are local and, in a very real sense, so is the mission of the Church. Don’t get me wrong. Important, exciting and transformative mission and ministry take place at the diocesan and wider church levels. One of the primary reasons we organize ourselves into these larger units, including the Anglican Communion, is to engage in the work of God’s mission in the world in a deeper and wider fashion through economies of scale, sharing of resources, and impact. That being said, for the overwhelming majority of members of our congregations, the Episcopal Church is equivalent to their local faith community and the mission and ministry of that local congregation is measured by the impact it makes on the people it touches both on Sunday, and, more importantly, throughout the week.

As leaders of our local faith communities, our primary responsibility is to bring the message of Jesus and his healing presence to our immediate surroundings and engage our neighbors and friends in the work of God’s reconciliation in the world. And we do this through a constant cycle of prayer, worship, education, fellowship, outreach, and evangelism – that awful “e-word.” The Episcopal Church has a powerful message of hope to a broken world. Likewise, our local faith communities also share this important message.

So, how do we reverse the numbers and grow the Church? – one person at a time. And it starts with us. We need to share our individual faith journeys, tell people about our remarkable faith communities, and personally invite them into a relationship with us and with God through Jesus. If each congregation does this in an ongoing and deliberate way, the numbers won’t make a difference and, quite frankly, will take care of themselves.